You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Quality Capra

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This is my post in The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon put on by the Wonderful World of Cinema!

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), or A.P. as his deferential colleagues call him, is a business magnate with innumerable successful endeavors. He has the full pockets to go along with a career full of shrewd decisions. And the latest scheme he’s worked up just might be the granddaddy of them all, that is, if it weren’t for the obliging grandfather in his way.

It stands to reason if Kirby can secure the 12 blocks around the Ramsey company, his one sole remaining competitor, he can cripple them out of business with a large scale monopoly, therefore controlling the munitions industry outright.

It’s a representation of the ugliest strain of free market capitalism. This is not the type of carte blanche you want ruling business, especially in Frank Capra’s world. Still, Kirby wants no interference and that means even Martin Vanderhoff must go. He throws one of his cronies, the perpetually twitching Clarence Wilson, at the problem to get it resolved by any means necessary.

But lest you think the man is merely an old crank who won’t sell out, Lionel Barrymore (now crippled by worsening arthritis) walks into the picture on crutches and mesmerizes the entire audience with his instant charisma. This isn’t quite UP, nor is he just a silly little man gumming up the works. Well, maybe he is, but he finds strength in family. That and his given temperament are all the better for doing battle with Mr. Kirby, indirectly though it maybe.

Lionel Barrymore is defined in modern generations solely by the curmudgeon Mr. Potter and little else. What You Can’t Take It With You is a superlative reminder of is just how magnetic an actor he was in all sorts of parts. Here he serves as the affable glue holding the picture together at the seams and spinning wisdom throughout the neighborhood.

It begins by recruiting other “lilies of the field” including the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who leaves behind the job he’s been slaving away at to follow his passions. You see, he makes things.

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There’s something innately compelling about the life Mr. Vanderhoff leads. In fact, it’s a bit of a practical utopia. He doesn’t work. He follows his fancy, whether sliding down the banisters, playing his harmonica, or going to the graduations to listen to the speeches. Still, he gets by and feels deeply contented holding malice towards none. The prayers he sends up to the big man upstairs are irreligious, frank, but genuine in nature.

His family takes much the same approach ,and they’ve built for themselves a comfortable if altogether quirky family commune.  Tony Kirby’s not far off when he surmises it’s “Like living in the world of Walt Disney.

Grandpa does all the aforementioned activities including collecting stamps because it’s what he likes best. Mr. Sycamore makes fireworks because he never grew up and mother writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Mr. Poppins feels right at home in the basement workshop devoted to all sorts of fanciful tinkering with a raven hopping about. Meanwhile, the precocious Essie (Ann Miller) jaunts around in ballet slippers to her husband’s xylophone playing.

Charles Lane’s IRS income tax man paying a house call and grating up against the libertarian, pragmatism of Grandpa is a hint of conflict just waiting to come to a head. Of course, all of this would add up to nothing if it weren’t for the central romance spawning the indelible chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because they are a bit of the prototypical Romeo & Juliet passion. He’s set up in his father’s business with no aspirations whatsoever to take over the family firm, and she is his typist with no status to her name. But we never once forget who these people are, and they are adorable together.

They forego the stuffy ballet for two front row seats at a much more attractive park bench, complete with daydreamy small talk and a personal show by a pack of real toe-tapping tykes. Then, it comes to meeting the parents at a well-to-do restaurant and in the sheer awkwardness of the scene, one cannot help but reminisce about Hepburn and Grant’s own high jinks from Bringing up Baby. This one involves a humorous tag, some phantom mice scurrying about, and so on and so forth (you get the idea).

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However, the creme de la creme has to be his parents coming over for dinner to meet Alice’s family under the most embarrassing circumstances, just as whimsical bedlam sets in. Xylophones, dancing, darts, exploding fireworks. You name it and they’re doing it. In fact, it’s enough for them to get raided by the police and serve time down at the courthouse waiting for bail — the Kirbys included. It’s the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I’m not sure if he was genius or not, but Capra had a knack for capturing the organic mayhem of a bustling courtroom to a tee. You Can’t Take It With You‘s finale uses the judicial arena to bring the story out of despair. There are words traded, a $100 fine enacted, and the passing of the charity hat, with the same outpouring of generosity from the common folk George Bailey would later be blessed with. Even the benevolent judge (Harry Davenport) throws into the pot.

And obviously, there is no Capracorn without the inspired quill of Robert Riskin. Watching more and more of Capra’s collaborations with Robert Riskin, there is the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter has as much to do with this American optimism we so often attribute to the director. Because the words, the scenarios, the characters are constructed in such a way to draw on these deep-running themes time and time again.

You Can’t Take It With You is an unequivocal reminder that these prevailing themes of humanity never quite go away; they only reimagine themselves and return with a vengeance. The patriarch laments the fact nowadays most everyone says “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.” If this aphorism was true in a pre-war society, think how much more pertinent it remains in a hyper-polarized, antagonizing social media age.

You can scoff out their resolutions as needlessly naive or champion them as eternal optimists. Regardless, in the world dreamed up here, it’s not just the lion laying down with the lamb. The banker can play harmonica with the country bumpkin and pick up the Russian in a fireman’s carry. If that’s not a bit of paradise, I’m not sure what is.

4/5 Stars

Platinum Blonde (1931)

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“It’s like a giraffe marrying a monkey!” ~ Conroy

The nucleus of Capra regulars are all present and accounted for including a script adaptation by Jo Swerling and dialogue by Robert Riskin. The cast, on the other hand, is an interesting array of talents that simultaneously proves a major asset.

Foremost among them and most notable in this picture right off is Jean Harlow. It’s certainly true Platinum Blonde was one of those that helped build the mythology around her that still seems to linger following her death in 1936. Thanks in part to its title alone. And yet it’s a role that feels contrary to the Harlow archetype. Further still, it’s nearly a misnomer because this is somebody else’s picture entirely and it’s very likely you’ve never heard his name uttered before.

Anyways, his name is Robert Williams and he plays our main protagonist Stew Smith, a newspaperman who works the beat with not only shrewdness but an understated affability and integrity.

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Idle moments at his typewriter are spent penning a play set in Siberia and then Araby and finally Old Madrid. He’s planning to figure out the plot later. Either that or he’s killing time playing his handheld puzzle with his co-conspirator Gallagher (Loretta Young) instead of doing work like any gainful employee. He’s the thorn in the side of his editor Conroy but the man can’t fire him. He’s too good at his job.

In this respect, it’s a picture that shares the same world and figures immortalized in comedies such as The Front Page (1931), Libeled Lady (1936), and His Girl Friday (1940). In fact, it seems like the newspaperman had a certain appeal during the 30s and 40s at least in cinematic terms.

Smith’s the man who digs up a story on the well-off Schulyer clan who are currently embroiled in a breach of promise suit that involves the family playboy Michael and a chorus gal. Though a reporter from The Tribune is easily bought, Stew’s not and comes out with a major scoop. He’s got his editor’s thanks and the family’s ire. Still, they are more surprised that he’s an actual honest-to-goodness newshound and not an opportunist.

Soon enough Ann Schuyler (Harlow) has fallen for him. So this is also a class picture and there’s the expected chafing when a man of working stock falls in love with a woman with means. They can go batty for each other but that doesn’t make acclimating to a new life any easier. And someone has to give. In this particular instance, it’s Smith and he goes absolutely stir crazy.

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He and Harlow are beyond cute together having a playful marital tiff over garters. For him, he would lose all respectability in the newsroom and his own individuality if he went back to donning this archaic emblem of the old elite. For her, it would help make him into a gentleman.

But far from just glowing with Harlow, Williams can’t seem to put a step wrong. Whether it came purely out of the script or not, he translates the actions with a sincerity that feels utterly disarming. When he has the mansion all to himself, he starts hopping about and testing out the acoustics with his vocal chords. Then there’s an extended sequence with a discourse between Smith and his valet Smythe about the art of “puttering.” Don’t try and figure it out.

And he keeps the lamp burning with Gallagher too. Loretta Young at 18 years old and radiant as ever is not exactly a “one of the boys” prototype and she can’t pull it off like a Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck might. But that doesn’t downplay her usual effervescent and winsome charm, bouncing off Williams nicely. There’s no doubt about it; they’re pals. You know a girl’s one in a million when she’ll help you get out of a jam with your play. She advises him to write about something he actually knows about like his own life story with Ann.

Of course, the aforementioned play proves imperative to the final act of the film because we see the very events occurring in real time being used as perfect fodder for the fiction. The man finally stands up to his wife. He finally moves out and plans to get a divorce without “alimony” attached. He’s too proud for such an arrangement. Always has been.

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But most importantly the play’s ending gets written right in front of us too. He goes back to the girl he’s always loved without ever realizing it. He tells her what a fool he’s been. End scene. Call me a sentimental sop but I couldn’t have envisioned a better ending for the picture if I’d written it myself.

The great tragedy of this particular film is not that Harlow was gone in 5 years time but that Williams would pass away only 3 days after the picture was released. And that’s why the film history books don’t have as large a page on this man as they very well might have. There’s no question he’s a charming dope with a touch of understated comedy and certain charisma.

It’s a testament that in a movie boasting Frank Capra, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, Robert Williams is the undisputed standout, holding together all its various relationships with aplomb. He elevates the picture. It’s a shame that we lost him on the precipice of what could have been such a rewarding film career. I admit it’s a bit selfish. I would have loved to see him in more

4/5 Stars